When The Only Tool You Have Is A Hammer: Todd Phillips’ Bittersweet Motel
“Bittersweet Motel” – Todd Phillips’ (“Frat House”, “Road Trip”) documentary about Phish, covering the period between the Great Went in August 1997 and the band’s brief foray to Europe in July 1998 – occupies a peculiar sort of limbo. On one hand, it is a film that will be extremely interesting to fans and those with a working knowledge about Phish. On the other hand, it is clearly directed towards an audience that is somewhat removed from that, though doesn’t seem to provide enough background information for that audience to make a complete picture of the band.
The structure of the film is loosely chronological. At least, that’s how it’s meant to appear. The footage begins with what is labeled as “tour rehearsal” — an insightful glimpse into the writing of Birds Of A Feather, presumably in the spring of 1998, before the Island Tour. The film then jumps full force into the “tour”, which one would expect to follow such a rehearsal. The footage is from five months earlier, December 1997 in Rochester, New York. From Rochester, via a quick detour through New Year’s at Madison Square Garden, the movie moves to Europe in July 1998. After some hijinx over there, we are told that the tour concluded with a two-day festival in Limestone, Maine. The Great Went, which took place nearly a year before the featured Europe tour, in mid-August 1997, closes out the film.
This kind of artistic liberty is acceptable to some degree. The Great Went, and specifically the highly symbolic burning of the collective sculpture at its conclusion, provides for a fitting and poetic end to the progression. Unfortunately, this leap completely ignores Phish’s own artistic development during this period — and is highly symbolic of the film’s attitude towards the band’s music as a whole. This is where the film is highly flawed. Aimed towards an audience which doesn’t already listen to Phish, the purpose of the documentary would seem to be to explain precisely who Phish are. With a band like Phish, their musical and personal identities seem to be so hopelessly entwined that an understanding of one would be necessary for an understanding of the other. Unfortunately, Phillips manages to avoid any real exploration of who Phish are musically.
A great deal of the film focuses on guitarist Trey Anastasio. (Rumor has it that midway through the film’s production, the band got cold feet about having a documentary made about themselves, whereupon Anastasio volunteered to take the burn of the spotlight.) Throughout, his behavior is – to say the least – amusing. He comes off across between a kid who managed to make it big and an utter asshole. One doesn’t see enough of the other band members to make a judgment about them.
Midway through the film, Anastasio delivers a short speech about “energy”: “I couldn’t fuckin’ care less if we missed a change, or a number of changes. It doesn’t have anything to do with it for me. It’s all about energy. I thought that was a pumpin’ show last night. I really couldn’t care less. Who cares? People aren’t there to see us get through all the sections perfectly. I thought people were rockin’. That’s all I care about.”
Well, that may be so, but that represents a significant shift in the band’s (or Trey’s) musical philosophy. Through the first 13 years of the band’s history, they seemed to pride themselves on precise playing and intensely rehearsed arrangements. Over the course of 1997 and 1998, the exact period that the film covers, the band transformed from a band that focused on execution to a band that based their shows on energy. The film makes no direct reference to this important change in Phish’s identity.
With the revised chronology, the film ends with what might be considered a sign of the beginning of this progression: their post-set analyses of the Great Went, a tradition that the band would scrap on the fall tour immediately following the Went. In all of this, the film offers a hell of a lot of new information to a viewer who can filter out the filmmaking and place it in the context of Phish’s history. Phillips obviously has an eye for moments of relative importance to his subject and is just unsure how to deal with them.
Of course, all of this analysis comes from the perspective of an avowed Phishhead and is probably somewhat useless in making a truly objective judgment about the film.
For those unfamiliar with Phish, they provide an interesting enigma. For many, despite an infinite amount of arguments to the contrary, they still (and probably always will) fall in the considerable depth of the Grateful Dead’s shadow. Their fans are frighteningly devoted — many see them as near cult members. For those interested in finding out more, there are numerous topics which could easily yield some kind of significant insight into who Phish are and what they mean to American culture. (The closest appraisal of this actually comes from Anastasio, fairly early on in the film, when he describes the band as an absolute product of ’70s suburban mall culture.) Two big aspects could be considered, quite simply, the band’s music and their fanbase.
A fair amount of music is featured in the film, with a dual emphasis on high impact moments (usually excerpted from the peak of a jam) and the band’s quieter, more introspective songs. Phillips is not a Phishhead, and this isn’t a bad thing. His taste is clearly reflected in his song choices, which highlight a part of Phish that I’m reasonably sure most devoted listeners don’t often consider to be Phish’s specialty: ballads. Here, delicate songs like Waste (taken from the Rochester show) and Brian and Robert (taken from the Europe tour) unfold with a pristine beauty. In places, they border on standard rock documentary fare – slow-burning songs coupled with weary road footage but they mostly manage to overtake it.
To his credit, Phillips does a good job exploring (at least) Anastasio’s opinions on these matters. For the most part, though, Phillips lets the music speak for itself — which is both good and bad. For all the footage of the band talking about stuff, surprisingly little is said about what it is that they do. There are few glimpses into how the band goes about their day-to-day work. There is nary a single mention of the word “improvisation”, which certainly comprises a lot of what they do (and a lot of what makes them so compelling to so many people).
Phish’s fans aren’t presented in a particularly favorably light either. A brief catalogue: a dreaded miracle seeker outside Rochester; several guys in white hats discussing the relative merits of schwag, keying and shotgunning beer in a tent; and a space cadet ingesting nitrous oxide and dancing on the tarmac the Great Went. The only interview with a fan which attempts to make a probe into what it is about Phish that makes them worth following comes from a moderately inarticulate traveler on the streets of Europe. In the end, the footage of the fans is only likely to reinforce cynics’ opinions of Phish’s fans as a bunch of drugged out kids — or leave people just as baffled as they were when they went into the film.
Throughout, Phillips’ filmmaking is smug, which isn’t to say it’s bad. In fact, it’s mostly quite clever. There are a numerous amount of humorous juxtapositions, often filled with the same kind of in-jokes that make Phish so much fun. Phillips has a profoundly keen sense of rhythm, and a real talent for cutting footage in with music. The scenes in which there is no narration going on, in fact, are excellent. During these moments, Phillips’ own humorous cinematic voice speaks clearly through his choice of angles, edits, and lighting.
“Bittersweet Motel” works well as a supplement, working only in the context of who Phish were from 1997 to 1998. Unfortunately, one doesn’t really get any sense of how they got that way — like characters in a movie with a non-existent prequel. One suggestion would be to use this film as a supplement to the incredibly informative “Phish Book”, written by Phish along with Richard Gehr, which may well be considered this film’s doppelganger. Where “Bittersweet Motel” is unfocused, “the Phish Book” can easily provide clarity.
Jesse Jarnow is a dorque.